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Talking to kids about family secrets

Jen Klein is a New England-based technical writer and mother of three. When she isn't asking her kids to stop bickering, "caramelizing" the dinner or actively ignoring the dust bunnies under the couch, she enjoys knitting, gardening, pho...

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Every family has their tales. There are the tales that make their way into family lore, like the time Aunt Edna made a beautiful roast but the dog ate it, or any of thousands of variations from silly to slightly embarrassing. There are also other family stories that maybe get less airtime. Perhaps they are a little more embarrassing than usual or perhaps unpleasant. Still, sometimes you need to make an effort to tell those stories to your kids - or risk an unpleasant surprise later.

Mom talking to daughter

No person is perfect and no family is perfect, but hiding that fact is rarely beneficial. Things happen: mistakes are made, sad and hard things happen...and we survive. We keep going, we evolve.

Sometimes in that effort to keep the forward motion, we forget to tell our kids about certain things (at age appropriate times, of course), and when they find out later, they are shocked, and may feel like something was being hidden from them. Anything from the family business in previous generations, to family members lost tragically in years past to, well, so many things.

What makes a family

Just like your stories, your experiences and your "secrets" are part of what makes your whole, the same thing goes for families. The good, the bad, the silly, the weird -- it's all part of it. If you came from a family of roaming carnival workers or struggling farmers or anything, really, it's part of what makes the family. Even your great uncle with the less than stellar legal record makes up your family.

While it may not be something you could say you are "proud" of, it's part of it, and there's a difference between accepting these elements of your family as part of your life and lore and being honest about them -- and hiding them away. That said, not every tale is Thanksgiving table-ready.

Tragic "secrets"

Some "secrets" aren't so much secrets as they are tragic events in a family that are not talked about because they are so hard and sad. The loss of a sibling or child, or even whole parts of the family sometimes are pushed into the crevices of family life and not discussed in an effort to make things "easier" for another family member.

But when an older child becomes a young adult and, for example, suddenly learns through a found box of newspaper clippings that her father had a whole other family before hers, one that perished in a plane crash, the news -- the "secret" -- can shake someone to the core. It may have never been meant to be a secret, but if no effort was made to communicate and tell, the effect is similar to an intentionally hidden secret. It can not only open old wounds, but create new ones.

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Changing social times

Stories and "secrets" may be not talked about because, at the time the event happened, social expectations were different. Things have changed. Whether it's who your dad's brother married, or that he didn't or whatever, there is more social acceptance now.

It may have been an extremely hush-hush secret 50 years ago that your mother's cousin was born less than nine months after her parent's wedding, and perhaps your grandparents still don't talk about it openly -- but does knowing that change how much you love that cousin? She's still your cousin, still your family, and understanding this situation can help shape discussions with your kids going forward -- and help disappate some residual (and often unnecessary) family shame.

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Age appropriateness and family sensitivity

Telling kids about certain family issues and tales is an age appropriate thing, of course, and must be done with some sentivity to other family members. You have to ask yourself if your child is old enough to understand the issues, and accept the information with appropriate sensitivity.

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Telling your child about a certain family issue may help them to understand why some family members behave in a certain way, and may help them in their own decision-making going forward. If the main players in some family stories prefer not to have the whole story told, you also need to respect that -- and be ready if and when the information comes out in the future.

In some cases, the family story in question happened when you child was young and you may assume they "know" about it -- but younger kids don't always pick up on those things or their perception of the event may be skewed. Talking about it again, when your child is older, can help clarify for them what really happened and, again, lead to a greater understanding.

Families are complex, changing organisms in their own right. No family is perfect and there are many tales to be told. Telling the tales -- and promoting the acceptance and understanding that goes with that -- can actually lead to a greater family whole.

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